While traditional vacations may not be viable for all families or destinations for awhile yet, dreaming of family vacations is never off limits!
As we await the time when we can book family adventures again, I’ve been thinking back on our 2019 fall break trip to sunny San Diego that generated a lifetime of memories for our party of five. Even sweeter, October is “Kids Go Free” month in San Diego, and this mama needed no more prompting than the promise of frugal family fun to hit “reserve” on our 2019 fall vacation.
Whenever you’re dreaming of visiting San Diego, during fall break to take advantage of kids’ free admission at local hot spots, summertime to sun on the beaches or winter in search of warm weather, our family can promise yours that a trip to the birthplace of California will result in sunshiny memories for years to come. Tuck away our five day itinerary for future planning!
We booked an early morning flight (because, let’s be honest, when it’s vacation day, the kids will be up at the crack of dawn anyway!) to ensure time to play once arriving in San Diego. After picking up our rental car, we headed straight to Seaport Village, a beautiful hub of waterfront dining, shopping and outdoor entertainment. Our kids were intrigued by the antique carousel, danced to live music, begged for ice cream (wishes granted) and enjoyed strolling along the pier.
From Seaport Village, it’s a quick walk to the USS Midway Museum, the longest-serving naval aircraft carrier of the 20th century, now a historic museum, where the kids got in free. A self-guided audio tour of more than 60 locations in the carrier takes you though this city upon water, narrated by Midway sailors, from the flight and hanger decks featuring more than 30 restored aircraft to below-decks exhibits exploring how thousands of sailors made this ship home and even a peek at the engine room that kept the craft running.
We marveled at the kitchen that served more than 14,000 meals a day, the hospital ward and the size of the sailors’ bunks (tiny!) Other highlights included several climb-aboard aircraft and cockpits (with my Top Gun-loving husband calling first dibs to command the Maverick aircraft). An audio tour especially for kids, including a scavenger hunt to complete for their very own set of wings, kept my trio engaged for several hours.
We chose to stay north of San Diego in Carlsbad, both because we could score cheaper hotel rates and we knew several families who raved about Omni La Costa Resort and Spa. In addition to typical hotel rooms for up to four, they offer larger rooms to comfortably fit families of five, plus villas with fully stocked kitchens. We made use of most of the eight (yes, eight!) outdoor swimming pools, especially the family pool with a sandy beach entry and splash landing pool complete with two large water slides, a smaller slide and a splash pad. Three restaurants, two coffee shops/cafes and poolside bars (in season) gave us plenty of dining options without having to leave the resort, a major plus on our first night when we hit the pool and grabbed pizzas from the marketplace.
Another reason we opted for the Omni is its proximity to the mecca of Carlsbad, LEGOLAND. To fuel up for a full day of fun, we stopped first at Beach Plum Kitchen in Carlsbad, where old-fashioned buttermilk pancakes and waffles, migas with chorizo and roasted bell peppers and choose-your-hash with options like mushroom and spinach or house-cured pork belly are beautifully presented and top-notch tasty. Don’t miss the blueberry muffins with buttery crumble topping or the homemade pop tarts.
To get kid-free admissions to LEGOLAND, tickets must be purchased online ahead of time, and the park only allows one free kid admission per paid adult admission. Arriving about an hour before official opening is key (hint: the gates actually open about 30 minutes early); while rides are only open to hotel guests, early rope drop allowed us to get the lay of the land, check out the gift shop and plan our day.
Our adventure junkies loved the thrill rides, while our youngest most enjoyed driving school, commanding his own LEGO car. Mainland USA is a must-see, with iconic cities built with intricate details. We all loved spotting our favorite fairy tales come to life in LEGO form as we drifted through Fairy Tale Brook and the interactive fun aboard submarines in LEGO CITY Deep Sea Adventure, where we competed in a scavenger hunt on touch screens.
For dinner after a fun-filled day, we chose Karl Strauss Brewing for its location near LEGOLAND, family-friendly menu and indoor/outdoor dining options. One of SoCal’s most famous local breweries, Karl Strauss offers everything from indulgent “Mac on Tap” featuring a variety of mac and cheese combinations to spicy salmon or chicken quinoa rice bowls. The kids’ menu included burgers, mac and cheese, chicken and even fruit and veggies (some in our party were happier about this than others).
Less than a one-hour drive from Carlsbad, the nearby beach town of La Jolla is home to a resident population of wild seals and sea lions, one of our kids’ must-sees in San Diego. We were greeted by a plentiful, playful pod at Children’s Pool at Casa Beach. Though originally created for kids to swim as the name implies, it was quickly taken over by area seals and sea lions, which can now be observed at a respectable distance.
Next, we stopped in at Birch Aquarium, where the kids got in free, a small attraction offering special opportunities to understand sea creatures, including public feedings of their famous leopard sharks and sea turtles and a dive show in the two-story kelp forest. In addition to hands-on fun at the outdoor tide pool, the panoramic ocean views are breathtaking.
A slice of Hawaii in SoCal, lunch at Duke’s in downtown La Jolla overlooks the sparkling sea and features flavorful fare like fish tacos, Korean sticky ribs, seared ahi bowls, fish and chips and the famous (definitely shareable!) Hula Pie, towering macadamia nut ice cream on a chocolate cookie crust, topped with hot fudge, whipped cream and toasted macadamia nuts.
We spent a lazy afternoon at La Jolla Shores, a popular public beach, where the ocean was decidedly too frigid for the adults but didn’t deter the kids from frolicking in the surf for hours.
Back in Carlsbad, we enjoyed dinner al fresco at Tinleaf Fresh Kitchen, a delicious fast-food alternative with creative salad, sandwich and soup combinations, including the spicy cubano sandwich and mediterranean salad with hearts of palm, chickpeas and candied pistachios.
After a quick breakfast at our hotel overlooking the rolling hills, we made the 45-minute drive to the San Diego Zoo, which met all our expectations and then some! We arrived prior to the 9 a.m. opening, which meant we got right in when the gates opened. In October, kids are automatically free, no pre-purchase or coupon required.
With more than 3,700 animals on 100 acres, we planned ahead of time which animals we most wanted to see, focusing especially on those we don’t have at the OKC Zoo. We loved the lush greenery of the monkey and tiger trails, and even got to see one of the big cats enjoying his breakfast with educational commentary by a zoo volunteer. At the river hippo trail, an underwater peek at two napping hippopotamuses made us gasp at their sheer size. Penguins zipping through their watery habitat, fuzzy koala bears dozing in their treetop homes and real reindeer grazing next to the habitat of huge polar bears made our favorites list.
The grounds of this zoo are out-of-this-world impressive and the engaging volunteers make for an educational experience. Though we packed snacks, we purchased lunch onsite and were pleased with the selection of gourmet bowls, salads and sandwiches with fresh ingredients. Eat early to avoid heavy lunchtime crowds.
After a long day of walking, we rested our tired legs poolside and watched our kids speed down the water slides. We opted for a quiet dinner at one of the hotel restaurants, dining outdoors to enjoy a beautiful sunset on our family getaway.
The saddest day of vacation … time to go home. We booked an early afternoon flight so we’d be less rushed and made one final stop at our favorite restaurant of the trip, Beach Plum Kitchen, for more of those delectable blueberry muffins.
We returned home with a bit of sand stuck to flip flops, rosy cheeks thanks to that sweet sunshine and memories to last a lifetime.
What is “Kids Go Free”?
It’s true! During the month of October, kids can eat, stay and play for free at more than 100 San Diego attractions, hotels and restaurants. Big name attractions like LEGOLAND, SeaWorld San Diego, the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park all typically participate, with deals varying by location (for example, at the zoo, all three of our kids got in free, but LEGOLAND only allowed one free kid admission per paid adult admission).
With a pass downloaded from sandiegomuseumcouncil.org, kids ages 12 and under receive free admission at more than 40 area museums, including two on our itinerary, Birch Aquarium at Scripps and the USS Midway Museum. You can even find free surf lessons, kayak rides and whale watching and boat tours. Check sandiego.org/kidsfree for all the offers, with the full list of participants typically available by mid-July each year. As COVID-19 has impacted the tourism industry and city and state regulations across California, double check with all attractions, hotels and restaurants prior to booking.